Help! I've been asked to moderate a panel. 3 Things you shouldn't forget

Help. I’m moderating a panel.

I’m going to refrain from all debate/Lester Holt commentary in the hopes that the panels you are going to be asked to moderate won’t be as contentious or historical. That said moderating a panel really well is really hard.  Here are three areas to think about when it comes to panels. 


  • Ask about sound for the panel. How will it be miked? From my perspective, it is ideal for you and the panelists to have lavaliere microphones that are controlled by a sound tech. If that isn’t going to happen do anything you can to avoid each panelist being given their own microphone. That kind of noise pollution is abusive to your audience and you will undoubtedly lose control.
  •  If you only have one handheld microphone to work with then you should plan to moderate standing up and bringing the microphone to panelists when it is time for them to talk. Think of it as a “magic talking stick” which will help you control the flow and pace of the panel.
  • When it comes to staging, it is trendy to go Oprah style with comfy armchairs for everyone to sit in. I would argue that even though the casual furniture is supposed to make people feel more comfortable it also makes people sit with terrible posture and that actually makes them less comfortable. It also delivers a low energy feeling to the audience
  • Only have a pre-call with the panelists if it is to introduce yourself. You can give them the gist of the questions you are thinking about but avoid supplying a list of questions so they don’t get too rehearsed. It doesn’t hurt to ask them what they can’t or don’t want to talk about because it could save you the awkwardness of a "no comment" moment.
  • Ask about how the audience Q&A portion will function. Will you have roving microphones that will be brought to people who raise their hands? Will people line up at the microphone? Will people write their questions down instead of asking them directly? Will those questions be given to you to curate or is that someone else’s job? Always repeat or paraphase the question before you let someone answer just in case the question wasn't heard throughout the room.


  •  Make panelists write their own bios so you aren’t reading their long, boring ones that came from their LinkedIn page. Give them instruction like tell me 3 professional accomplishments you are proudest of and a few facts on your connection to the topic. Also always confirm pronunciation of their names and their companies if you have any doubt. If you fumble their names it makes you look like a rent-a-moderator versus a thought leader.
  • Think about the chemistry. You want a panel to be like a conversation between interesting people that the audience gets to learn from. It is not an interrogation. At the same time don’t pick people who know each other too well b/c then the audience feels like they are interrupting old friends walking down memory lane.
  • It seems obvious but take time to craft great questions for your panel. Avoid the softballs that panelists can interpret anyway they’d like or that will be a bore for the audience. Use projective techniques and questions to encourage story telling. “Can you picture a time when …?” “Tell us about the moment you realized …”


  • Don’t have everyone answer the same question. It’s a snooze for the audience.
  • Learn how to pivot a conversation so that you can keep the discussion productive. We’ve all had to do this at extended family dinners to avoid any explosions – rely on those skills!
  • Forbid recycled slides and corporate videos if at all possible because the audience knows they are just being re-purposed versus created uniquely for this occassion. Once a panelist has slides you hand over more control of the timeline than you should.
  • You are probably doing this panel because you are trying to promote yourself or your company. Don’t be afraid to insert yourself into the panel in small doses. Plan a short kickoff for the panel that explains why you were chosen “When Sam asked me to do this panel he knew that I was also thinking about …”
  • Watch the clock. You are the ringmaster of this circus and you need to make sure to stay on schedule. If they don’t have a “shot clock” for you on the stage put your phone in your pocket with a vibrating (silent!) alarm that will let you know when you are half way through and when you have 5 minutes left. This is one of the things I love about my Apple Watch.


Jen DrexlerComment